Today’s BBC report of the Italian coastguard finding the bodies of 25 refugees in the engine room of a boat highlights the desperate lengths to which people will go to reach Europe and the hope of a new life.
It is a problem the BBC have had the courage to highlight for the past two decades. The closing scenes of ‘The March’, a 1990 television drama, are provocative. A quarter of a million refugees stand on the Moroccan coast looking at Gibraltar. The European Commissioner handling the situation is an Irishwoman played by Juliet Stevenson; the Irish are ‘good guys’ in world politics, an Irish commissioner would surely make the right decisions.
Faced with a sea of refugees, she refuses to allow them to cross into Spain. The leader of the refugees offers that the Africans will come and be pets for European families; the commissioner is advised that the annual expenditure on pets in Europe is larger than the annual income of many Africans. The refugees have nothing to lose and take to a flotilla of boats, which land in Spain and are confronted by European soldiers in the midst of international television coverage, at which point the film ends.
The event is pure fiction, the final scene of a 1990 BBC television drama. But development experts say it neatly illustrates a stark choice looming for the industrialized world: Pitch in more energetically to bring Africa into the global economic fold, or wait and watch as the continent descends into a quickening spiral of disaster.
With its population due to double to about 1.2 billion in less than 30 years, and expected to reach 2 billion by 2050, an Africa in crisis could well become the desperate stage for a mass emigration the likes of which have never been seen.
Despite such warnings, however, the West seems to have grown only more indifferent to Africa’s fortunes. Some American congressmen have recently likened aid to the continent to throwing money into a rathole; Britain has said it will cut its contributions to Africa through the European Union, and even France is grappling with ways to reduce obligations to its former possessions.
French’s article was written sixteen years ago; the plight of tens of millions of African have worsened since that time. Debates surrounding the causes of the continuing impoverishment of African people make little difference to the plight of those who live in poverty we cannot even imagine.
As our country ponders its deepening financial crisis and our government protests that there is no money for the most vulnerable in our society, (despite finding billions for bankers), the people who are in danger of altogether disappearing from the picture are the poorest of all in our world, those who would have a better quality of life if they came to Europe to live as pets.